First-year Springfield hitting coach Ramon “Smokey” Ortiz's tutoring has quickly rubbed off on an offense with a first half division title already earned.
So far this season, the first-year hitting coach and his high-contact, but well-powered offense ranks a close third among Texas League teams in batting average with a collective .257 mark, just three points below the Midland Rockhounds, who pace the circuit.
The offense also has the second-most home runs and third-most hits of any Texas League team. In addition, they rank fourth in on-base percentage and OPS.
Here in Part 2 of this exclusive interview, Ortiz discusses his experiences in Double-A and a number of Cardinals prospects he is coaching.
Derek Shore: Now that you've experienced the first half of Double-A for the first time as a coach, what is different versus the lower levels?
Ramon Ortiz: "Pitching. I can see that you don't see too many guys with a fastball of 100 miles or 97 or 98 with consistency. Instead, you see a lot of movement, and some of those guys try to locate better in order to set up all those pitches with movement. That's the way they get people out.
"I think the mentality that I have noticed is that they try to get people out as far as they know what they have. If I'm not a power pitcher, but I have a good sinker ball or a good sinker/slider - I'm going to use it. If I combine a changeup, a screw, a sinker, and slider or curveball whatever it is - if I locate my fastball wherever I want - 'hey, you have a big battle.' You've got to battle to beat that guy.
"I don't mean that the fastball isn’t important. Yes, it is because if you don't hit the fastballs, you're going nowhere. Also, I've been convinced at the major-league level they get you out with more off-speed pitches and movement with the location of fastballs. You can hit the fastball, but you got to learn to hit the fastball because that is the pitch they set up to throw the off-speed.
"As you move up to the higher levels, those guys have more control on pitches, they can move; they can locate the fastball even if though it's not 100 mph. They can still locate the fastball up and in, down, and up then set up the other pitches. That's the difference I see because I see guys here chasing balls, especially ahead in the count.
"I have seen guys here swing at the first two pitches. I don't know for what reason. I'm asking everybody, 'Why you always on 0-2?' Hitting in 0-2 is hard. Hitters have a count where they are productive. It's when you feel comfortable with certain pitches.
"For me, there's no ‘be aggressive’. That's when you ask in a hitter 'you are aggressive but selective.' 'You are aggressive with the pitch of the hitting zone.' because pitchers have a zone, hitters have a strike zone; the umpires have a strike zone, so hitters should have a hitting zone.
"That's what you see in batting practice; they don't know, and you do know, so that's when they start hitting with consistency in some part of the plate. In games, they don't see that pitch consistently that can allow them to became those good hitters. In those that become good hitters is because they follow that point, they gain knowledge of the strike zone, and of course, they become great hitters."
DS: How would you describe your offense's performance this year?
RSO: "We need to be working on our situational hitting which means men on third or first less than two outs - we have to drive in those runs because we need it. We have to manufacture runs. We have to hit behind the hitter, place the ball on the sacrifice, hit the ball with runners in scoring position, especially with a man on third less than two outs.
"That's what my characteristic is as an offensive guy -- be productive and stay away from double plays. Don't roll over, don't swing at pitchers pitch, and all of the stuff because they on the mound - once they have men on the corners - they want a groundball. That's why the double play is the pitcher's best friend.
"I try to get hitters away from that situation and wait for the ball up in the zone they can drive somewhere to produce those runs. Even if he hits the ball hard and somebody catches it, but if we hit the ball hard and scored a run. We try to manufacture runs and let the other things take care of themselves because if you have power, you have power. If you don't have power, you don't have power.
"If you are a contact hitter, you will have better contact. All of the types of things like that."
DS: How do you help a guy cut down on strikeouts?
RSO: "That's a good question. First of all, in the lower levels, they are learning. That's how long it will take the process for them to get into it. My job is to reinforce what they bring to me. It's easy to reinforce, see as a hitting coach, 'What are they doing wrong? What are they doing? What are they doing right?'
"You can see what they are doing wrong. The first thing they are doing is swinging at bad pitches. There's no good mechanic to swing at bad pitches. They understand that, though. I was very fortunate to work with kids who understand that point. Also, what they call a slump is sometimes a small mechanic like thinking too much.
"Then we try to correct the situation by putting everything together and have a conversation instead of going to the cage and 'do this or do this or work at this or work at that.' Sometimes, I pick it up to get his mindset in order to start over again. We start over again always with the basic things.
"I like to coach of force because if I never see him take a walk, failing, failing, failing, and not hitting well. My simple question to those guys is 'how long have you not taken a walk or something.' 'You haven't taken a walk since when?' Then they started drifting their eyes up and down then side to side. Try to bring the image of 'wow.' 'Well, that could be the difference - you are swinging at everything out of the strike zone, you're swinging at pitcher's pitch early in the count, and you're always behind in the count.'
"'It's not something with your mechanics - get back out there and think basic.' It's the basic things. We get back to the basic things which brought them here. I would always force myself to help them find a way back to that point."
DS: Who are some individual hitters who have impressed you this year?
RSO: "(Harrison) Bader has impressed me. His approach is tremendous. We have a little gamer. He's got a pretty good chance to play in the big leagues. Right now we are working on precisely what we've talked about before. When he gets to two strikes - he has a good approach - it's still too hard. At the same time, I don't want to take it away from him because I have seen guys hit the ball out of the ballpark and he's one of those guys, who can do it with two strikes. The adjustments to be made are very little.
"Another guy who has impressed with power to the alleys and to get doubles and he's tried to turn them around to become a home run guy, our third baseman Paul DeJong. (Luke) Voit and Anthony Garcia, who even was in Triple-A, they sent him down, and I don't rule it out on him.
I think he's got the potential to be a good baseball player. I just think he's got to make some adjustments. Everybody has to make adjustments at some point.
"Then (Carson) Kelly, who has made huge, huge progress. I think he's the guy who has impressed me the most on both sides - offensively and defensively. He's made a huge step even though he's a converted catcher. For me, it looks he's been there forever. He's gaining some power and on the gaps too. I think he's got the potential to be a good hitter as he gains more knowledge of the strike zone and matures as a hitter, I think the homers will be there too."
DS: One last question; what have you seen in Voit and Bruce Caldwell?
RSO: "I like Caldwell's makeup. He's a nice guy to have around because he hustles every time. He's a good fielder. He's got good tools. He can drive the ball all over the place. He's got some power and doubles with him in the gaps. He can hit the ball out to right center as well as to left center. It's a matter of time with him as far as gaining knowledge of the strike zone.
"For Bruce, it's how he handles those left-handed pitchers with good stuff. You don't see too many starters, mainly left-handed relievers that have good stuff. That's what I've seen on him, and we are working on it.
"Voit doesn't have that raw power you can describe as a scout. He's got game power. He can hit a home run as far as anybody, hit the gaps, and hit a line drive, a lot of ground balls for base-hits and a lot of hard singles. He's got the power with him. When he's hitting the ball, most of the time it's with authority. I'm impressed because he's another kid I've had for three years and he's made a huge, huge step as a hitter.
"There's still more coming, but I think with his approach to the game - it shouldn't take too much time and for he and Bruce to get into it."
For more: Link to Part 1 of this interview, in which Ortiz discusses his background.
Follow Derek Shore on Twitter @D_Shore23.
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